Last September, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1732, a bill requiring all single-stall restrooms in the state of California to be designated “gender-neutral.” It is the nation's most inclusive restroom-access law, and it went into effect on March 1.
“When we heard of people going to restrooms being harassed, of not feeling they could use restrooms in public without the fear of violence, we looked at a common-sense approach,” says Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco, who wrote the bill. “It just makes sense for every single-room restroom to be open to everybody. Our legislation is very simple.”
AB 1732 doesn't worry at all about any restroom that's intended for two or more people, focusing entirely on single-occupancy restrooms, that is, "rooms with a toilet and/or urinal and sink." All it's saying is that the sign outside must be changed from “male” or “female” to some other designation indicating that it can be used by all genders.
But contradictory laws make it confusing after all.
Eddie Navarette has worked as a restaurant license consultant in Los Angeles for 19 years. He makes sure prospective restaurateurs dot the regulatory i's and cross the licensing t's before opening.
“I try to tell them all the bad news up front,” Navarette says. “Sometimes they walk away and say, 'I'm not going to do it anymore.'”
One thing that's been on Navarette's mind lately is restrooms. “There are so many contradictions, especially when it comes to food establishments, of what's applicable and what's not,” he says. “And with [AB 1732], there's no direction or guidance.” A problem with the implementation of AB 1732 is that, in certain jurisdictions, it goes against laws currently in place.
For instance, in the city of Los Angeles, when an establishment decides to try to obtain a liquor license, a few other regulations kick in. For example, if alcohol will be served, the venue needs to have both a male-only and a female-only restroom. (This requirement seems to come from three different agencies: a County Health Department code, an L.A. municipal code and a California Plumbing Code.)
A large percentage of restaurants and bars in Los Angeles don't have restrooms that conflict with AB 1732, since they're designed for more than one person to use at a time. But many small restaurants currently only have the two necessary restrooms (one for men, one for women), and there's no current instruction for how to comply further. If the new regulation means they have to add a third “gender-neutral” restroom, for many, that's simply out of the equation.
“They don't have the square footage,” Navarette says.
Say you have 700 square feet total in which to create your restaurant. The current L.A. regulations state you need to spend nearly 200 of that on two separate restrooms. Does AB 1732 mean they have to spend another 100 feet on a third “all-gender” restroom? Would that even satisfy the seemingly simple requirement that says all single-occupancy restrooms have to be gender-neutral?
Frankly, it's too early to answer a lot of these questions. As with any new, broad legislation, it will be an ongoing process as local and county regulations jockey for position around the law handed down by Sacramento. Technically, the requirements of AB 1732 supersede any other regulations. “Those [local] regulations will need to be adjusted,” says Jo Michael, legislative manager for Equality California, a civil rights organization that sponsored the bill. “Legally speaking, [AB 1732] is what businesses should be complying with.”
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But also, maybe there's a hidden bonus lurking for the mom-and-pops. If AB 1732 supersedes current regulations for male-only and female-only restrooms, does that mean restaurants can get rid of one of their single-occupancy restrooms and reclaim that 100 square feet with a table or two? If so, perhaps this can be accidental assistance for the city's smaller restaurants.
“The whole separate-sex restrooms rule has been a killer for small mom-and-pop restaurants,” Navarette says. “That requirement just needs to go away.”
AB 1732 is just a first step into the murk of the future. As early moves by the Trump White House suggest, the nation's public restrooms are set to become a weird and smelly civil liberties battlefield over the next four years. With California seemingly leading the way toward restroom inclusion, perhaps there's an opportunity to change the standard design entirely.
“I like the Japanese solution,” says Ricki Kline, an L.A.-based interior designer. “You just go into a restroom, use the cubicle of choice, do your job, and that's it.” Restrooms, then, would simply be an extra part of the restaurant melting-pot experience. “We're alone in our cars, in our apartments, in cubicles, in front of our computers. We go out to mix it up. Bathrooms could eventually be another way to mix it up.”